There were no nerves when BioLumic boss Warren Bebb took to the stage in St Louis recently to pitch to potential US investors. Bebb, who was in St. Louis attending the high-powered annual Ag Innovation Showcase, had the advantage of a briefcase full of promising results to persuade the Americans that the Palmerston North-based start-up was ‘the real deal’.
Among the audience at the event, which showcases some of the world’s most promising agriculture start-ups and research projects, were venture capitalists and angel investors, potential channel partners and collaborators.
“They were surprised at the results we were getting,” remarks Bebb. “Very pleasantly surprised.”
BioLumic was founded in 2012 to commercialise research by horticulture scientist Dr Jason Wargent into the growth-stimulating potential of UV light on plants. Fostered by BCC, the fledgling company has developed UV recipes and a prototype commercial device that have been trialled by commercial growers to boost crop yields and to control plant size and stress tolerance. As suggested, the results to date have outstripped all predictions.
“We’ve been able to achieve up to 40 per cent gains, says Bebb, who was initially working as a BCC business growth manager when seconded to BioLumic and was so impressed he signed on as CEO. “If you talk to commercial growers about 40 per cent gains, their eyes light up”
The US trip was about moving BioLumic to the next level, connecting with investors and strategic partners who can help it take on the world. Specifically, the company plans a Series A funding round in late 2015, with a target of raising $3–$5 million.
Bebb says the Americans were struck by the novelty of the using invisible UV light on crops.
“They hadn’t thought of approaching yield improvement and disease control from this angle. Some of them were very interested in the opportunities it presented. We had meetings set up all the time we were there.”
Dean Tilyard, CEO of BCC, travelled with Bebb. He says the scale and intensity of the US agritech and investment scene didn’t necessarily surprise.
“But what certainly is different from New Zealand is that the level of expertise and scrutiny around technology is much higher there. They want to know how things work. At our meetings they moved very quickly beyond the results to wanting to understand at a very detailed level the mechanisms, and then to put their finger on exactly what IP existed to protect that.”
They must have liked what they heard. “The people we talked to saw very large commercial potential,” he says.
There have been no deals done as yet – like growing crops, it’s a slow business. But BioLumic has subsequently had more detailed conversations with interested parties in the US. “We got more traction with potential strategic partners than investors, but that’s to be expected,” says Bebb. “Potential strategic partners are specialists in this area – they get it quicker. We’ve since moved further with those companies.”
The US is a priority among BioLumic’s 10 target export markets, due to the sheer scale of the industry. In the lead up to next year’s funding round the company will conduct trials stateside. “They want you to have a presence there. We won’t have a US office in the next 12 months but will certainly have some on-the-ground results based in America that people can look at.”
It’s an exciting moment in the company’s growth. But then Warren Bebb has been excited about BioLumic from the start. “It’s a novel approach that no one else is doing. The opportunity really is huge.”